On listening to Fauré and long lines in poetry

I’ve been wondering a little bit recently if there’s some literal sense to a connection people spot between the fact I studied music and the form of the poetry I write. Well, wondering that, and if I’m honest, whether or not I’m really putting together anything, not original exactly, but newly, interestingly, (or usefully?) combined.

I believe I’m able to take a lot away from the process of my writing. With each completed poem I feel I’ve taken an x-ray of myself that also shows up the wounds picked up from my present and past engagements. Interesting and helpful to me as I make my decisions about and adjustments to the way I can live.

Regards the music connection, it continues to fascinate me and provide insteresting points of comparison with poetry artform.

For example I’m writing at the moment poems in long lines. I’ve been enjoyably taken to task on this recently by a poet friend. I was wondering in any case what the attraction of long lines to me at the moment was, and I think it’s partly to do with wanting to have a unit of sense (the line of the poem) which is long enough to hold quite a lot of syntax and be nearly long enough to be read on its own, but that also needs relation to the other lines on either side of it to hold it up. I enjoy a potential for sense dissonance between how the line reads on its own and how it must be read to make sense in its context.

This strategy perhaps derives a bit from my big hearting of Emily Dickinson. The little hyphenated clauses in her poems often float inconclusively in sense between other parts of the poem. See, ‘I think that the root of the wind is water’ for example.

Also, I was reading a review of an anthology on a blog somewhere quite recently which posited that in much current British poetry, the individual lines make sense, but that something is being left out or occluded in between the lines as written. The effect was of a whole reality that the poem was holding back from representing. I think instinctively I’ve taken this criticism (for it was meant that way) into my thinking and at the moment I’m more interested in writing poems that are of the one piece of elastic reality. I’m not sure if I mean reality, but one whole, not patchwork around missing bits.

The long lines question came into my head again last night when I was listening to a piece of music that’s been new to me in 2012, Fauré’s D minor Cello Sonata. It was written during the 1st World War – Fauré was an old man at the time and the sort of artist who had been patiently perfecting his grasp on the aspects of musical language that interested him I think . The first movement in particular has had me hooked. It’s unusually punchy and rhythmic for Fauré. Also, it pleased me that I was having such difficulty working out what the time signature (the beat) was.

I often love it when music works this way and had a similar pleasure with the beginning of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song.

With the Fauré cello sonata, I discovered, when I managed to track down this handy youtube version showing the sheet music in time with the performance, that as I had pretty much suspected, the first movement is written in 3/4.

It doesn’t sound that way at all consistently though, and I’d encourage any of you who are able to read music to listen first with your eyes closed and try to work out where the barlines are. I noticed on further looking, that the piano part for the first 40 seconds or so, definitely isn’t obviously in 3/4 but that the cello line, looking at the placement of the semiquaver flourishes, actually is. The cello phrases are so comparitively long against the assertive piano quaver pairs though, that this isn’t enough to give an obvious sense of the time signature to the listener.

It’s there though, this time signature, and I was intrigued that Fauré had chosen to write the movement all in this same time signature when so much of the content seemed to disregard or work against it. I wonder if the idea of these longer 3/4  cello phrases was helping Fauré in its construction as a mental unit, a sense unit, like the a set long-line in poetry. A long-line in poetry can be similarly imperceptible when the poem is read out. It has its effect, however on the writing and the reading. It holds sense together in some way while pushing form under. It’s a puzzling tension.

Faure has sometimes been seen as conservative. I wonder if he suffered from the fact of living so long and being able to write his best sallies against the received order when perceived as old and therefore not the young man from whom you’d expect the shocks in the system to come from (his pupils included Ravel for example)?

I think many musicians have been perplexed by the later Fauré chamber works, if interested at all, by what seemed to be a narrow range of expression dragged out in slack forms. I believe pieces like the string quartet, his last work, are famously difficult to ‘bring off’, and with this particular cello sonata, there’s debate about the tempo of the last movement, with cellists believing that the printed metronome mark must be too slow; this may be related.

What I’m hearing in the music is more akin to different processes working themselves out in tandem, but sometimes only in loose relation. The music comes unstuck within – the threads in its weave loosen.

This is some sort of approach to extending the possibilities of how a formal structure is perceivable. This is a pushing against the formal container of a piece, or maybe the opposite of pushing, rather some sort of creating of a slight vacuum in the centre of the form somehow blurring a boundary between what’s in the piece and what’s in the perception of the listener, or the players even? A sort of proto-John Cage listening exercise?

Maybe that’s too much to say, but the slackness in the middle of a late-Fauré movement forces the players and the listeners to hear connections in a different way. The form has to work harder to bear up the weight of the lengthy meanderings and wrong-footings within it. In the process we become more aware of the assumptions about how the music will work perhaps? And how the art form relates to our lives and our perception of life. I feel like reading the Fauré piece this way fits with other modernist developments like stream-of-consciousness writing.

I hear something of the unstuckness happening in the second movement of the cello sonata too, where the piano and cello are playing the same material out of time with each other. It’s very hard to tell where the beat of the bar-line is again. I hope I’ve encouraged you to listen to this piece of beautifully accomplished music.

The long slack form thought possibly relates to the long slack, verbose, but shaded lines I’m trying to write and keep electrified. This talk of slack electric power lines has just made me think of a poem I love, and indeed a seasonal one, which I’ll share below. I think it fits the argument of this post rather well. And if there’s a lot of ‘slack’ in this post, it’s possibly also because I’ve been watching Miss Marple again and Chief Inspector Slack has featured heavily!

LATE SNOW

J.C. Squire

The heavy train through the dim country went rolling, rolling,
Interminably passing misty snow-covered plough-land ridges
That merged in the snowy sky; came turning meadows, fences,
Came gullies and passed, and ice-coloured streams under frozen bridges.

Across the travelling landscape evenly drooped and lifted
The telegraph wires, thick ropes of snow in the windless air;
They drooped and paused and lifted again to unseen summits,
Drawing the eyes and soothing them, often, to a drowsy stare.

Singly in the snow the ghosts of trees were softly pencilled,
Fainter and fainter, in distance fading, into nothingness gliding,
But sometimes a crowd of the intricate silver trees of fairyland
Passed, close and intensely clear, the phantom world hiding.

O untroubled these moving mantled miles of shadowless shadows,
And lovely the film of falling flakes, so wayward and slack;
But I thought of many a mother-bird screening her nestlings,
Sitting silent with wide bright eyes, snow on her back.

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